Thursday, 17 November 2011

When Eight Bells Toll (1971)

Long before The Silence of the Lambs (1991) finally made him a household name, Anthony Hopkins had built a formidable reputation as an actor on the stage. But he had also been hovering in the film world since his eye-catching feature debut in the late 1960s with The Lion in Winter. This indecisive career was seen as hurting his standing in both mediums early in the ‘80s: “And whatever happened to Anthony Hopkins?” film and theatre critic John Walker asked in 1982, fearing he would fall into the same traps as the likes of Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole but without ever having matched their meteoric phases. For over twenty years Hopkins often seemed on the verge of becoming a major screen star, after the likes of his role as a dubious spymaster in 1969’s John Le Carre adaptation The Looking Glass Warthe vexed, ill-shaven police detective with a family at risk in Juggernaut (1974), and his impressive turn opposite John Hurt in The Elephant Man (1980). Hopkins' willingness to deliver expertly oversized performances is part of his value today as an older actor who found a rare niche of fame, but as a younger actor, his cerebral, dour, aggressive persona limited his chances of succeeding as a romantic lead. His obvious intelligence and emotionally discursive style matched the impression he gave of his seeing right through any lesser material sent his way. When Eight Bells Toll, one of his few traditional starring roles, is the closest anyone will come to seeing Hopkins play James Bond. When Eight Bells Toll is in fact an Alistair Maclean adaptation, the author himself writing the screenplay, from one of his novels which often leaned into Fleming-esque territory, although Maclean’s heroes and action each tend as usual to be much less glamorous.

Hopkins plays Philip Calvert, a British Navy action man retrieved from service in the Mediterranean by his old pal Roy Hunslett (Corin Redgrave), an Intelligence officer, to help organise an investigation into a series of disappearances of ships carrying bullion off the Scottish coast. Calvert makes a plan to track a potential target ship, and this is accepted by Hunslett’s globular snob of a boss, Sir Arthur Arnford-Jones (Robert Morley), or “Uncle Arthur”, but he also insists they use two more familiar and house-trained agents. When Calvert boards the ship in an inlet off the small town of Torbay, he finds this pair have been killed, and Calvert only escapes a party of gun-toting heavies aboard by the skin of his teeth. Calvert and Hunslett soon begin to delve into a conspiracy that involves the townsfolk, who are variously employed or blackmailed into aiding with the ship hijackings, including local laird Kirkside (Tom Chatto) and his daughter Sue (Wendy Allnutt). The notion of a town conspiring to wreck ships is encrusted in British pulp folklore, inspiring the likes of Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, but here it’s played in modern dress. The mastermind of the villainy seems to be magnate Sir Anthony Skouras (Jack Hawkins, after throat surgery had spoilt his distinctive voice, dubbed by Charles Gray), who hovers off the coast in his yacht with his icy wife Charlotte (Nathalie Delon) and suspiciously bossy guests MacCallum (Derek Bond) and Lavorski (Ferdy Mayne). Calvert is beaten up by local brawlers, and the motor yacht he and Hunslett use as their base of operations under their cover as marine biologists is searched by goons pretending to be customs men, including chief henchman Quinn (Oliver MacGreevy, a hulking bald Irish actor perhaps most recognisable from The Ipcress File, 1965). 

Calvert resists returning to London when Uncle Arthur wants to pull the plug on the operation, and instead commandeers the helicopter sent to pick him up and its pilot (Maurice RoĆ«ves) to search for potential hiding places for the stolen ships. Machine-gun wielding villains shoot at the helicopter, killing the pilot and causing the craft to fall from the sky, smash apart on the coastal rocks, and slip into the sea with Calvert trapped within. He manages to sustain himself with emergency breathing apparatus until the goons go away. This is a gripping, visually impressive, well-staged action scene that’s a cool reminder of what those looked like long before fancier effects and CGI entered the fray. Another dynamic action scene comes later, when Calvert realises that the villains are sinking the ships off the coast and extracting the gold submerged, and so he ventures out to dive on a wreck and finishes up battling Quinn in a hardhat diving suit, bad guy trying to roast hero with an underwater welding torch. A great part of the pleasure of When Eight Bells Toll is in this gritty, three-dimensional quality permeating its production and thrills and spills, forcing its actors to flounder in the frigid northern waters and turn blue in arctic winds whilst they’re pretending to punch and shoot each other. As such it belongs more to the sub-strata of distinctly British, realistic action movies dating back to ‘50s flicks like Sea Fury (1958), in spite of the Bond-era affectations, which are most sadly signposted by a tediously declarative score by Walter Stott, who simply reminds me of how good John Barry was at this sort of thing.

Peter Ibbetson’s widescreen photography makes the most of the innately dramatic location photography around the Scottish and Irish coastlines, generating a sweeping, primal backdrop for the genre shenanigans that renders them incrementally more substantial and affecting, until it starts to look a little like Ryan’s Daughter with more action, especially thanks to director Etienne Perier’s enriching eye for mise-en-scene. Rather than the glitzy polish of the era’s spy films, When Eight Bells Toll, whilst hardly straining to be lifelike or antiheroic, possesses a sense of physical extremes and paranoid danger – particularly in the way the village’s oppressive atmosphere redolent of The Prisoner TV series – which lend it an immediate and entertaining kind of force. Perier had gone to Hollywood soon after his start in French cinema to make the little-remembered Bridge to the Sun (1961) and then settled into a peculiar peripatetic career: after this film he made the engaging, if over-ambitious, neo-pulp epic Zeppelin (1972). The chilly, blasted landscapes make a fine setting for Hopkins’ terse, unromantic, ultra-professional Calvert. Wearing his class resentment on his sleeve and chafing at Uncle Arthur’s unrefined snobbery, Calvert is a tightly wound package of punitive anger, professional zeal, and firm yet peculiar, personal morality, an eminently human yet dogged protagonist. It’s easy to admit that another major pleasure of the film is in the sight of Hopkins getting into fisticuffs and gun-fights, squeeze into a wetsuit, plug a guy with a crossbow, and do all the things expected of an action hero (although he obviously needed a stuntman much more than, say, Sean Connery), whilst refusing to buff himself into a smoothly palatable screen persona.

The villains try to kill Calvert repeatedly, and succeed in killing Hunslett, last seen being chased down in a dinghy by the henchmen and turning up finally hooked onto the anchor chain of the yacht. This is one of the film's best moments, as Hunslett’s body is slowly hauled from the dark deep by Calvert, who had hoped he was only being kept prisoner, like several other friends and loved-ones of the locals being pressed into aiding the hijackers. Perier manages to invest these images with a peculiar aesthetic and dramatic darkness, a quality which infects much of the rest of the film. Calvert gets even, ramming a boat full of henchmen and shooting them as they struggle in the water with a cold variety of reckoning, and he sets about pounding the enemy organisation into the ground. He gets some unexpected help in the form of Uncle Arthur, who, after unwillingly investigating some of Calvert’s leads, realises what they’re up against and comes north to check up, taking Hunslett’s place in one of the stranger action movie partnerships ever: Morley’s bluff, corpulent charm squarely offsets Hopkins’ grim wit. A third member is added to the team when Charlotte swims over from Skouras’ yacht and claims to be escaping his regime, engaging in a distrustful flirtation with Calvert before proving to be a mole. Romance was never MacLean or Hopkins’ strong suit, and the sub-plot of Charlotte is an almost complete bust, alas, in spite of casting the comely Mrs Alain Delon. Nathalie maintains that glazed, louche-eyed elegance of too many Francophonic starlets of the era where the part seems to need a more playful, jaggedly charismatic actress. The filmmakers never seem to quite decide whether Charlotte is supposed to be a likeable bad girl or a straight femme fatale, and the distinction never gains much importance either way, so it all provides a singular drag on the otherwise admirably sturdy proceedings. The final scene, where Calvert lets her go even though she’s proven herself duplicitous, is more than slightly bewildering, only coherent in that it suits Calvert’s slightly subversive sense of justice, happy to redistribute some wealth long after he’s made it plain he doesn’t really care what happens to rich people’s bullion. 

Much more entertaining, if far more brief, is Hopkins’ short partnership with the aptly Celtic-hued Allnutt’s Sue. When he breaks into the Kirkside’s clifftop castle, being used as the base of operations by the criminals, and needing to extract the hostages from the castle dungeon, Calvert gets Sue to momentarily distract a guard (Del Henney): she strokes the guard’s rifle with phallic meaning and asks, “Is it loaded?” Once Calvert has disposed of the guard, he growls in wry disbelief, “‘Is it loaded?’...You must learn more than deerstalking in the highlands.” Such tongue-in-cheek flavouring runs through the film as a whole, but thankfully it mostly retains a steady cool until that uncertain final scene. Hopkins gets most of the best lines, tossed about with dry aplomb, describing Skouras’ yacht as “like Sotheby’s afloat” and, answering Redgrave’s enquiry about how he came to be dusty and dishevelled after in fact being beaten up by bad guys, “I happened to bump into this wild Gypsy girl in the heather, that’s all.” Skouras finally turns out only to be another dupe, being controlled by Lavorski and MacCullum, whom Skouras begs Calvert to chase down and reveals his real identity: “Lord Charnley?...Of Lloyds’?” Calvert asks in mild perturbation, “My god, there’s nothing sacred is there?” Whilst its flaws stick out squarely, When Eight Bells Toll nonetheless deserves a better reputation, especially compared to some of the dismayingly over-rated ‘70s Bond films, and it made for one of the more surprisingly blissful ninety minutes or so of recent viewing I’ve had. 


Stephen Gallagher said...

A favourite of mine -- a thriller that reshapes and heightens reality while keeping its texture. It's from that phase of Maclean's career where the novelist and screenwriting halves of his creativity meshed; before the slide into all those late-career novels that read like failed screenplays.

"I don't like it. Too many ifs and buts."

"With all due respect, sir, you haven't heard an if or a but yet."

But you need to hear Hopkins say it, to feel the crackle.

Roderick Heath said...

Thanks for saying that, Stephen; you make me feel distinctly less crazy for liking this as much as I did considering its low critical reputation. Whilst it has distinct problems, I appreciated its strengths - that reshaping and heightening as you describe it - to an extent that made not really care. Yes, that dry dialogue comes to life spilling from Hopkins' lips. I've remained a dogged fan of MacLean's early work and some of the films based on it, and a couple of his early novels including Night Without End and especially HMS Ulysses, really deserved good films that sadly never came about.

Patrick said...

Thanks for the tip. I went through a MacLean phase many years ago, my dad had his books laying all over the house and I read bunches of them, had no idea this was a movie, I'll try to track it down on netflix. Besides the two best known of his movies from books, I also recall seeing The Satan Bug many years ago, but have no memory of how good, or not, it was.

(another somewhat similar writer was Helen MacInnes, remember her? She was pretty good.)

Roderick Heath said...

Patrick: I do remember Helen MacInnes, never read any of her work, though. Can't help but wonder though if you're thinking of Hammond Innes, another Scots writer who was even more like MacLean. I used to read a lot of both of their books back when I was fonder of climactic extremes and macho derring-do. Haven't seen The Satan Bug, but the book was hugely enjoyable as I recall.

Patrick said...

No, it was definitely Helen. The Salzburg Connection is a title I recall reading. My brain is sieve though, things seem to leak out of it after a few years, I remember more of a general impression of her books as fairly well written and suspenseful, but no specific details.

Roderick Heath said...

Okay then!